Our Holy Ground
November 10, 2019 the book of Haggai
This is a first for me. I will confess I have never preached from the book of Haggai. And I’m curious, do any of you remember hearing a sermon about the prophet Haggai? Another confession, a couple of weeks ago if you had asked me to say a little bit about Haggai, I would have stared at you blankly. I could have told you he was a minor Old Testament prophet and not much more. But one of our lectionary texts for today is from Haggai, actually the only Haggai reference in the entire three year cycle and somehow it caught my attention. Obviously, I needed to do some serious reading in this book of the Bible, but as it is the second shortest Old Testament book at only two chapters long, this didn’t represent a serious time commitment. Yet despite its brevity, it’s divided into five tiny sections covering just a few months. If we align the Babylonian lunar calendar with our present-day calendar, we see that Haggai is actively speaking from around the end of August to the middle of December in 520bc (Interpretation Commentary, Achtemeier). According to our Biblical record, Haggai is a prophet for only 3.5 months but in that short time his admonitions and encouragements are significant enough to land him in our canon. Pretty sure there’s another entire sermon down that track.
What is happening in 520bc that has Haggai all worked up? A little bit of a history. A few weeks ago, I talked about the Babylonian Exile, when all the prominent Jewish citizens are forced from their homes into Babylon and in the year 586bc the city of Jerusalem is destroyed, the temple is razed. Then in 539, almost 50 years later, Babylon falls to Persia and the King of Persia, Cyrus, allows the Jews to begin returning to Judah, to Jerusalem. It would be hard to imagine the excitement these Jews take with them as at long last, they begin returning to their homeland. Determination and enthusiasm carry them in waves and pretty much as soon as they arrive, they roll up their sleeves, start rebuilding the city walls and lay the foundation for the new temple. Donations are coming in, spirits are high, everything is going great, and then…the Samaritans get in the way.
We know by the time of Jesus, there is real animosity between Jews and Samaritans. But who are the Samaritans? Depending on whom you talk to, Samaritans trace their origins way back to the prophet Eli as found in First Samuel, or to the period of the Kings as descendants of Manasseh (Wikipedia). Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, there are still a little over 800 Samaritans living today. While Samaritans likely existed long before the exile, it’s likely that the rift between Jews and Samaritans widened and became entrenched during and after the exile.
Not all the inhabitants of Judah were forced into captivity during the Babylonian Exile. The poor, those who struggled, were left behind to keep some semblance of civilization intact and to tend the land. It would appear most of the Samaritans were left behind. So for almost 50 years, you have this population that remained in Judah, in Jerusalem, and they did their best to keep the home fires burning. It wasn’t easy. When the best and the brightest of a society are all kidnapped from among you, there’s a lot of regrouping and reorganizing that needs to happen. But at some point a survival instinct must have kicked in and they did what they needed to do. The Samaritans, as part of this remnant that never left, probably came to enjoy certain leadership roles in their communities and after 50 years of hard scrabble living, they took pride in the lives they were able to put back together again.
Life maybe wasn’t great, but things were stable, manageable. And then somewhat unexpectedly, you have this huge group of Jews return and start running rough shod over everyone who had been left behind, Jews and Samaritans alike. The returning exiles have tremendous gifts, intelligence and leadership skills. Historians indicate the exiles landed back in their homeland and started taking everything over again. Can you imagine the conflicts and rivalries, the animosity and bitterness that must have erupted?
However, the returning exiles are under orders from God to rebuild the temple. They have their own plans in place and are working hard, laying the foundation for the new temple when the Samaritans approach them and say in essence, “You know we share so much history and we would really love to worship in this temple too. Can we help you rebuild?”
The exiles’ response? “No. This temple is for Jews only, so only Jewish people can build it.” Needless to say, this doesn’t go over well. And what the returning Jews perhaps overlook is that in their fifty year absence, the Samaritans have built some pretty impressive alliances with people in high places. When the Jews turn this invitation down flat, the Samaritans decide, if they can’t worship there than no one’s worshipping there. They start greasing the palms of the authorities and lodging false complaints to the government. Their trumped up concerns and accusations reach the halls of power in Persia where the king who succeeds Cyrus declares that all rebuilding must stop because the Persians don’t want the Jews to prosper and gain too much power. Following the dispute with the Samaritans, all work comes to a standstill and stays that way for 16-18 years. Enter Haggai (Ezra 4).
As August draws to a close in the year 520bc, Haggai, led by God’s Spirit, decides it’s high time to get this rebuilding project back on track. The foundation for the new temple is in place, but for the last many years the people have been worshipping in the burnt out remains of the old temple. This won’t do. So in five separate little speeches, Haggai exhorts the people to get their tails in gear and get busy. Not surprisingly, he runs into resistance on at least three fronts.
In the book of Ezra, chapter 4, we discover the king of Persia has prohibited the Jews from rebuilding the temple. Unless they are willing to break the law and incur of the wrath of the king, it’s best to steer clear of the new temple site. The people are scared. They’re being asked to put a lot more than a toe out of line here. Will they be returned to exile? Will they invest their blood, sweat and tears in this new temple only to have it torn down again? Will their fragile hopes be dashed along with a newly built temple? Fear is getting in the way.
They’re also busy. Only a little over 15 years into their return home, most of the Jews are still paycheck to paycheck. They struggle to make ends meet. They spend their days laboring and come home tired. Haggai even acknowledges the hardship in 1:6 when he says, “You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages, earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.”
They’re scared. They’re busy and feeling the financial pinch. And in our passage for today we come across the third stumbling block and perhaps the most significant one too. The people are still knee deep in grief. They remember the glory of the former temple and they know, no matter how hard they work and how much they commit to this project, they know the second temple will pale in comparison to the first. This rebuilding work is bringing them back in touch with their sorrow and grief over all that was lost in the exile and the destruction that followed – 2:3, “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?”
Despite their apprehensions, after Haggai’s very first speech at the close of chapter 1, the people find the courage to face their fears, to make the time and to channel their grief, kicking the rebuilding efforts into gear. In Haggai’s next four speeches, all held in chapter 2, he cheers them on, encouraging, instructing, reassuring.
Part of what makes the book of Haggai interesting is that this is really all there is to it. Unlike almost every other Old Testament prophet, Haggai doesn’t talk at all about justice and mercy. It’s also interesting that in other portions of scripture, God hasn’t seemed too keen on people attempting to build a temple for His dwelling place. What’s up with Haggai then? Why include this tiny and kind of misfit book in scripture?
Theologian Elizabeth Achtemeir and author of the Interpretation Commentary on Haggai writes, “Haggai actually has no thought that God will reward the Judeans with prosperity if they build him a temple – a sort of ‘you be nice to me and I will be nice to you’ religion. Human beings cannot buy the favor of the Lord of the universe. Rather, God yearns to return to this people and to dwell in their midst. The temple is symbolic of that dwelling; and if the Judeans rebuild the temple, their efforts will signal that once more they have turned toward God as he has now turned toward them. The temple will be sign and seal of their renewed hearts’ devotion – the evidence that they have finally come to terms with reality (99).”
You know we/I often talk about how the church isn’t a building, it’s a people. And the church needs to be about getting beyond the building to reach out and minister and serve. That’s true. But this little book in the Old Testament reminds us that the building is important too. That focusing our time, our energy, our resources on this holy space is a critically important way to ground ourselves in God, and can be a time to renew our heart’s devotion. We are certainly thankful for our trustees and all the work they do to maintain our church building and make it a strong and inviting place for God and for us to meet in worship. But this effort to hold and keep our church takes commitment from all of us and it also requires more than just maintenance as we look to discern new ways God might be leading us to use our space in service to God, to this body and to our communities. And so we’ve also been engaged in a visioning process that’s still unfolding. That visioning work has prompted a formal outreach group within the church and it has also invited us to dream about new ways we can use our space that might offer a better reflection of who we are called to be at this point in time. We have a new fire pit out back. Soon Pat will start fashioning a new communication wall in the foyer using woodwork from here in the church, creating something new out of something old. We are still making plans to update the parlor so it can be a more welcoming and inviting space for both guests and ourselves. And it will be a sign of health here in the congregation if this visioning is an ongoing process reflecting ever evolving understandings of who we are and how God is leading us.
However, it also seems to me that the three roadblocks Haggai faced among the people of Judah are very similar to the roadblocks we continue to put in our own path today.
We face fear. What if we invest all this money in new windows…what if we put money into remodeling and our numbers simply continue to dwindle? What if we allow some fragile hope to grow only to have that hope dashed?
And heaven knows we’re all busy. Who has time or energy or extra cash to invest ourselves even more in this quiet place off the beaten track? We already feel pinched in every possible way.
That brings us to the weightiest of the three – grief. We make changes, whether the changes be maintenance or remodeling and the changes stir in us memories of how things used to be and there is this sense that no matter what we do here in the present, we will never be able to recreate the prosperity and nostalgia of our past and it’s easy for the grief to find voice in resentment believing that whatever we do here in the present will be a pale ghost of what we enjoyed and experienced in the past.
But I think the message Haggai still offers us these many years later is a gentle reminder that God would have us face our fears. God deserves our very best. God asks us to lay aside our grief and make a way for Him here in our present. When we invest ourselves in this beautiful and grace-filled church building, we are not looking for God to reward us in any way. We don’t wield our visioning efforts as a bargaining chip – if we are nice to you God, will you be nice to us? No. We invest our energy, our hopes, our money, and our love in this building as a simple demonstration of our devotion to God. We recognize that while we can be church anywhere, this building here is holy ground where we come to learn about God, where we come to love our neighbors, where we come to worship, to praise, to confess, to sing, to pray. This is our church and no fears, no weariness, no grief should keep us from constantly renewing our heart’s devotion to God in our love for and commitment to this, God’s dwelling place and our view of hope – Hoffnungsau.